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Encouraging Children’s Empathy

Adorable girl comforting her little sister after she fell off her bike at summer park. Child getting hurt while riding a bicycle.

Empathy is the understanding of or sensitivity to others feelings and experiences. It is a developing trait across childhood and can greatly vary between children based on age, predisposition and experiences. There are several ways parents can coach the component pieces of emotion language and perspective taking.

Coach Emotion Language – Children being able to identify emotions in facial expressions, social context and in themselves is a strong foundation for empathy towards others. Here are several ways to coach emotions.

  • Use I messages – I messages are a productive way to label and share your emotions. They are also considered a foundation step of positive discipline. I messages label your emotions and explain why you feel that way while putting blame on the behavior or thing that happened rather than the child. Let’s say a child runs through the living room, and knocks over and breaks your lamp. An I message might be, “I am angry, my lamp is broken,” “I am upset, people are running in the house,” or, “I am frustrated, no one is listening.” The blame is passive (my lamp is broken) or global (no one is listening, people are running). This avoids blaming the child, “I am mad at you, you broke my lamp. You never listen.”
  • Give empathy – Empathy is validating your child’s emotions and why they feel that way. Often this can happen in the moment, and it’s also fine to provide this following an emotional exchange when all is calm. Empathy sounds like, “wow, you are angry. You didn’t like that game,” or, “I know you are upset, it’s so hard to be left out.”
  • Talk about others’ emotions – Discuss the sad baby you hear crying in the grocery store or the angry child who was having a fit at the playground. Label emotions, talk about things that make them feel that way or what others could do to help.
  • Be sure to include causes and consequences of emotions – At least occasionally in these conversations, discuss what came before the emotion or what happened as a result.
  • Read about emotions – There are so many good children’s books on emotions. There is a list on my blog at https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/childrensbooks/#emotions.
  • Tell your own stories with emotional content – If you are at all creative, tell your own stories with emotional content. When our girls were little, we told a lot of Amy and Catie stories. Amy was remarkably like our daughter Alicen, and Catie just like our daughter Claire. If Alicen and Claire had an upset at the swingset, that night Amy and Katie would have a similar upset at the sandbox. Your stories should all provide examples of positive ways to manage and express emotions and ways to calm.
  • Ask hypotheticals – As children are four and five years old, you can ask hypotheticals related to their own experiences. If your child gets angry over sharing toys, you might ask, “what would you do if you really wanted to play with a particular car, and your friend was using it and kept saying ‘no’ to giving a turn?” If needed, help brainstorm good choices and discuss possible outcomes.
  • Role play emotions – Go back and reenact emotional situations. If it was an upset with another child, take turns being each child involved and think of ways it could have gone better.
  • Give puppet shows – Most kids love a puppet show. Again, it’s good to make these about familiar exchanges.
  • Play emotion charades – Play charades, just be sure to include emotions as a category.
  • Make emotion faces in the mirror and to each other – Talk about how we know someone is angry, excited, sad or happy.
  • Make an emotions poster – Divide a poster board into 6 squares labeled happy, sad, excited, mad, surprised and scared. Provide assorted magazines, then help children cut out and paste emotion faces and things that make them feel each way. You might write in each box additional things that make them feel that way or any other thoughts they have about that emotion.
  • Listen to and discuss emotional music – Listen together to sad, exciting or happy music. Then, talk about what each song makes them think of and how it makes them feel.
  • Paint emotion pictures – You might paint emotion posters while you listen to the emotional music.
  • Sing emotion songs – We sing “When You’re Happy and You Know It” and include movements like clapping for happy, stomping feet for mad and crying for sad.
  • Learn more – For more ideas, you can read Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children by Lantieri or Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children by Blaine.

(Again) Provide Empathy for Their Emotions – The more they are hearing the labels for their own emotions, the more likely they are able to apply this language to others. Empathy is often a good place to start in a discipline exchange or when helping them learn to manage social conflicts. Just acknowledging emotions as they are, lets the child know that you hear and understand them. Remember, it’s often empathy before the discipline or empathy before the fix.

Coach Perspective Taking – Perspective taking is being able to see a situation from another child’s point of view. This is limited in the preschool years. Young children are often still so egocentric in their view, it is hard to step out and consider another’s experience. You might introduce this when you and the child are disagreeing or feel differently about the same topic. At bedtime, maybe talk about how you are happy and looking forward to sleep and they are annoyed and wanting to put off sleep. You might point out differing feelings or opinion as part of addressing when they are in conflict with another child.

Children’s Books – Reading and discussing books can be a great way to teach social skills.

Here are a few good children’s books about empathy:

  • How Full is Your Bucket for Kids by Rath
  • I am Human: A Book of Empathy by Verde and Reynolds
  • You, Me and Empathy by Sanders
  • Empathy: I Know How You Feel by George
  • Stand in My Shoes by Sornsen

Here are a few good children’s books that introduce perspective taking:

  • Voices in the Park by Browne
  • They All Saw a Cat by Wenzel
  • 7 Blind Mice by Young
  • You Are (Not) Small by Kang

Schedule Playdates with Younger Children – Occasionally playing with a younger child can bring out caring and empathy from an older child. You might label emotions when they happen. You might suggest the older child help the younger child with tasks or teach them how to do something. You might highlight how considerate or helpful your older child was after the playdate.

Provide Other Oriented Consequences – In discipline or when supporting social exchanges, it can be helpful to include other oriented consequences. This is pointing out a child’s impact on others. “Look at your friend. He is sad. Grabbing that toy made him sad.” or “She doesn’t like that. Hitting hurts her.” The idea is to let your child know their behavior had an impact on the others while avoiding direct blame language. This basically means to highlight their behavior and avoid using the word “you.”

Provide Do-Overs – When it seems appropriate, it may be helpful to allow the child a do-over, a chance to improve their behavior or make a better choice instead of always giving a consequence. The do-over allows the child to really consider alternatives ways to change outcomes.

Highlight Deeds as Personal Traits – I’ve written often about using descriptive praise. When you are praising a child’s behavior, academics or athletics it can be helpful to describe the behavior and label. This may be “You handed a block. That was helpful.” Or “You wrote five sentences. That’s a lot of work!” There is new research to suggest it is helpful to occasionally highlight their trait rather than give a straight label. This would be “You handed a block. You are being helpful,” or “You are a helpful person.” And “You wrote five sentences. You are a hard worker!” Highlighting the trait may give the child more personal ownership. It may be more likely they carry that self descriptor with them to influence future behaviors. They may be more likely to think of themselves as a helper or a hard worker. When it comes to encouraging empathy, it would be commenting often about how kind, considerate, thoughtful or friendly they are.

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Northern Virginia Staycation (Updated 2017)

Child at Mount Vernon in Northern Virginia

I made this list when we stayed home for yet another Spring Break, and thought it would be equally helpful to share at the start of summer! There are so many great things to do in the Northern Virginia area.

The Smithsonian- Our family’s favorite museums include the Natural History Museum, the two Air and Space Museums, the American Indian Museum, the American History Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The National Building Museum is also a hit with families, especially their recent summer exhibits. My children particularly enjoy taking in an IMAX movie and visiting the butterfly experience at the National History Museum. Here is a link to highlighted children’s activities: http://www.si.edu/Kids

Steven F Udvar Hazi Center- If your kids enjoy the Air and Space Museum, this museum in Chantilly is a must.  http://airandspace.si.edu/visit/udvar-hazy-center/

Newseum- We have found this to be a great museum with older children. It’s as interactive as it is informative. http://www.newseum.org/exhibits/

International Spy Museum- Fun for kids seven and up. http://www.spymuseum.org/education-programs/kids-families/

Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse- Good food, and who can beat Monday and Tuesday’s $2 movies? They often play family friendly matinees on the weekends as well. http://arlingtondrafthouse.com/drafthouse/

Fletcher’s Boathouse- Great place to rent rowboats, kayaks, canoes and bikes right on the Potomac River. http://boatingindc.com/boathouses/fletchers-boathouse/

Appalacian National Scenic Trail near Leesburg- For beautiful short or long term hikes, the entrance is just west of Loudoun County. https://www.visitloudoun.org/listing/appalachian-trail/364/

The B&O Railroad Museum- If you have a train lover in the family, this museum is worth the trip to Baltimore. http://www.borail.org/

Kid Museum in Bethesda- This museum offers STEM and cultural activities for children six to 14 years old. http://kid-museum.org/

Port Discovery in Baltimore- A fun children’s museum in Baltimore. They provide three floors of interactive exhibits. It’s designed for children who are toddlers to 10 years old. http://www.portdiscovery.org/

National Aquarium in Baltimore- The aquarium has become both of my girls’ favorite outing because of the dolphin show, rainforest area and shark tanks.  http://www.aqua.org/

Maryland Science Center- This Baltimore museum is worth the trip. http://www.mdsci.org/

Corcoran Gallery of Art- This museum has a large collection and interesting family programs. http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/education/families.html

National Geographic Museum- http://events.nationalgeographic.com/locations/city/washingtondc/

Canoeing, Kayaking and Tubing- We enjoyed tubing last summer, and are scheduled to go white water rafting (the mild course) next weekend. There are several companies including:

  • River & Trail Outfitters in Harper’s Ferry http://www.rivertrail.com/adventure-tours/
  • Shenandoah River Outfitters in Luray http://www.shenandoah-river.com/
  • DownRiver Canoe Company in Bentonville https://www.downriver.com/.

Mount Vernon- A full day of learning about George Washington’s life and times. It’s a kid friendly tour with lots of tips under Educational Resources on the website. http://www.mountvernon.org/

National Harbor Ferris Wheel and Waterfront Activities or Tidal Basin Paddle Boats – For waterfront fun! 

http://www.nationalharbor.com/play/ or http://www.tidalbasinpaddleboats.com/

US National Arboretum- This is a beautiful place to visit, and now they have a mobile app to assist with your visit. http://www.usna.usda.gov/

United States Botanical Gardens- Another beautiful place to visit to learn about plants and gardening. Every Thursday they host a parent-child tour for parents with young children in backpack carriers or slings. https://www.usbg.gov/

Leesburg Air Shows- Save the date – this year it’s Saturday September 30th. http://www.leesburgairshow.com/

Sandy Point State Park (beach on the Chesapeake Bay)- A small family friendly beach on the bay.

http://reservations.dnr.state.md.us/camping/sandy-point-state-park/r/campgroundDetails.do?contractCode=MD&parkId=380517

Trampoline Parks – Flight in Springfield, or Rebounderz in Chantilly.

County and State Parks

  • Huntley Meadows in Alexandria
  • Buddy Ford in Arlington
  • Frying Pan Park in Reston
  • Burke Lake Park in Burke
  • Bull Run Park in Centreville

Children’s Theatre

  • Encore Stage and Studio
  • Wolf Trap Children’s Theater in the Woods
  • Imagination Stage
  • The Puppet Co. at Glen Echo
  • Creative Cauldron

Spraygrounds and Water Parks

  • Special Harbor Spray Park at Lee District in Alexandria
  • Drew Park in Arlington (spray park)
  • Mosaic District in Fairfax (spray park)
  • Great Waves in Alexandria (water park)
  • Splash Down in Manassas (water park)

Farms

  • Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon
  • Loudoun Heritage Farm Park
  • Great Country Farms in Bluemont, VA
  • Washington’s River Farm in Alexandria

Horse Riding Trails 

  • Rock Creek Park Horse Center
  • Piscataway Riding Stables
  • The MainTree Farm in Leesburg

Zoos

  • National Zoo, DC
  • Maryland Zoo in Baltimore
  • Salisbury Zoological Park, MD
  • Catoctin Wildlife Preserve, MD
  • Roer’s Safari (Reston Zoo)
  • Leesburg Animal Park

Ice Skating

  • Lee District Rec Center
  • Ashburn Ice House
  • Fairfax

Playgrounds- There’s really too many to list here. This is a link to Northern Virginia Magazine’s list: http://www.northernvirginiamag.com/game-plan/2013/07/05/playgrounds-for-the-kiddos/. Here’s a second extensive list from Our-Kids https://www.our-kids.com/sports-recreation/playgrounds.

Your Child’s Social Skills and Play

Playing with blocks

A child’s social competence is most simply defined as their ability to play while keeping friends. If the other kids are happy when your child shows up, they want to continue playing with them and the play tends to go well most of the time then their social skills are likely developing at least fairly well. If other kids shun them, stop playing often and the play breaks down repeatedly then their social skills may be an issue. The idea is to watch the child in play, and look for patterns that cause the difficulties. Ask his teachers and other caregivers for their input about his play.

Across the preschool years notable social skills include turn taking and later, sharing, listening to others, carrying small then more complex conversations, shifting from parallel to interactive to group play, later building play scenarios and entering into on-going play. In elementary school, personal space issues, negotiation skills, conflict resolution skills, managing competition, perspective taking and empathy for others all become increasingly important.

Children who struggle with these skills may benefit from more playtime, guided practice and additional coaching activities. Good parenting books include:

  • Raise Your Child’s Social IQ by Cohen
  • Teaching Your Child the Language of Social Success by Duke
  • The Unwritten Rules of Friendship by Elman
If you have questions about social skills, please join me on facebook for a parenting chat every Tuesday night from 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. EST.

Ideas for Active Indoor Play

Funny little girl with pigtails sitting on a trampoline

I just saw the first weather prediction map for this winter. It looks just as bad as last year. Of course, it’s still great to get kids outside in rain and snow, but sometimes the weather is too bad, or they are just ready to be back inside. Last year, I posted a list of things to do on snow days – https://parentingbydrrene.com/2011/12/17/fun-things-to-do-on-snow-days/.  This post is an additional list of ideas for more active indoor play.

  • Jump rope
  • Jumpolene
  • Mini trampoline – check safety guidelines first
  • Balance board
  • Sock skating on hard wood or linoleum – paper plates on carpet also works well
  • Tumbling mat
  • Build pillow forts (couch cushions) or blanket houses (draped over the dining room table)
  • Balloon games – keep away, keep it in the air, tennis
  • Ping pong – there’s also a smaller table top version
  • Wii – dance and sports games
  • Bouncy ball games
  • Hula hoops
  • Paddle ball toy or yoyos
  • No-run hide-and-seek or sardines
  • Dance parties – freeze dance and teacher supply stores have movement and music CDs
  • Hopscotch mat – make this with painters tape on the floor or sidewalk chalk on low carpet
  • Sit-n-spin
  • Limbo
  • Twister or Hullabaloo
  • Circle games – London Bridges, Ring Around the Rosie, Jenny Mouse, The Farmer in the Dell, My Little Boat, Elephant, Duck/Duck/Goose, Hokey Pokey, Jump Jim Joe
  • Listening games – Monkey OR Elephant, Palm Tree, Boat OR Knights, Kings and Riders (each take three people). For singles – Simon Says, Do This – Do That
  • Nerf dart guns or Nerf basketball
  • Indoor baseball – paper towel bat and rolled up sock ball
  • Obstacle courses
  • Yoga
  • Challenge walking – have them only crawl or scootch or crab-walk for an hour
  • Books are rocks, chairs and beds are islands and the floors are lava

All About Playdates

Two little girls playing in daycare

Playdates give kids an opportunity to build individual friendships and practice related social skills.

  • Playdates can be brief – An hour is plenty for young children or children who don’t know each other well. Older children that get along well can often handle longer stretches.
  • Balance unstructured and structured time – Unstructured is open play time indoors or outdoors. Structured is set-up activities that may need direction or supervision. It’s good to prepare for both.
  • Have the activities as a backup – When the unstructured play is going really well, I tend to let that take the bulk of a playdate. If kids aren’t getting along or seem bored, the structured activities can be helpful (see list below).
  • Allow your child to put a few things away – Help your child by letting them put away any toys that they would have difficulty sharing.
  • Everything else is to share – Prepare them that all other toys are to be shared. For young children, you may have to manage turn taking.
  • One-on-one or at least four children – Two children for play is plenty. Three is definitely a crowd as one tends to get left out. If more than two, go for four or more which is more of a party than a playdate.
  • Snack can help – Snack provides a short break from play and a chance for kids to just talk. You can also make snack more playful by having a picnic or playing restaurant or letting the kids participate with prep and set up. Check for allergies before the playdate.
  • Okay to play separately – Sometimes kids are happy just to play near each other. One may be content with trains while the other is working on puzzles and that’s okay.
  • Your house, your rules – Whatever you would expect from your children (not jumping on beds), is fine to expect from all.
  • Outings can be fun – Think bowling, the playground, movies or a nature walk.
  • Invite a variety of kids – For my own children, we made the effort to get to know all the other children in their classes. Of course, the majority of playdates were with the friends they choose, but it’s nice to branch out too.
  • Be clear about the parent or sibling staying – It is great for the other parent to stay. It gives you a chance to get to know their family, and their child may be more comfortable. As children get a little older, it is also fine for playdates to be drop offs.  It is also okay to invite siblings to attend, but it’s not necessary. If two or more of your children are hosting playdates at the same time, it may be helpful to give each pair their own space to play.
  • Put pets away – Between allergies, children being scared or being rough with pets, it may be best to put them away.
  • Fine to cut it short – If it isn’t going well or if children are being aggressive, it is fine to end the playdate.

Structured activities – art projects, crafts, cooking, board games, puzzles, building pillow forts, puppet shows, dance parties, water play, Playdoh or coloring

Giving Challenges Builds Self Esteem

Portrait of a beautiful liitle girl close-up

A foundation piece of self-esteem is a child’s growing sense of skills and abilities. Are they being challenged? Are they learning new things?

An easy way to build this in is giving challenges in play. If they are building with blocks, challenge them to build it taller. If they are climbing, challenge them to do it in a new way. If they are playing with play-doh, challenge them to make some new creation. As they rise to meet the challenge in play, they are learning to take on challenges in life.

Another way to provide this is to enroll them in classes that provide new levels of challenges as they progress. This would include sports, musical instruments, cooking classes and foreign languages.

For self esteem, it can be helpful to focus most on their individual progress and their skills rather than the competition.

Once they are school age, a version of this would be to have them teach you one new thing they learned in school each week. This is a challenge to remember something and be able to explain it in detail to you. For challenges to be beneficial in this way overtime, they don’t have to be big. These can be small challenges given regularly.

Want Kids to Play with Their Toys?

Trains are boys best friends

As a parent, I know the familiar frustrations:

  • There are so many toys and activities in the house, and the kids are complaining they are bored.
  • You have to get dinner ready and want them to play with toys, but they are under-foot.
  • They finally find something to play with, and it lasts 6 minutes (you were banking on 20).

Answers:

  • Introduce and then occasionally play with them WITH their toys – When they get a new toy, it can be helpful to play with them with it. Help arrange furniture in the dollhouse or build a lego structure next to theirs. The more you can get down on the floor with them and play, really engage and play, the better. Through playing with them, you are showing them new ways to use the toys and ways to interact. Through your attention you are letting them know the play itself is valuable.
  • Have a stash of toys you can start with them, and they can continue on their own – If your child is good at puzzles, set aside a few that you can start with them and then make trips away. If they love to color, sit to color a page and then take regular breaks while they continue to color.
  • Focus on open-ended toys – Open ended toys are toys that can be used in a wide variety of ways and are often simple. There isn’t a right or wrong way to use open-ended toys. This includes blocks, balls, lincoln logs, bowls, legos, boxes and dress-up clothes.
  • Buy the low-tech toys that “do nothing” – If you are buying a new doll, opt for the one that does nothing. If you buy the one that grows long hair or the one that speaks Spanish, that dictates to the child how to use the doll. It narrows the play. If you are buying a dollhouse, opt for the one that is quiet. If you buy the one that has a doorbell, tv sounds and barking dogs, it lessens creativity.
  • Think multi-age – This means to look for toys like dress-up clothes, art supplies or building blocks that children can use when they are three years old and when they are seven years old.
  • Give them things to do that are like what you are doing – Need them to play while you cook? Give them a kitchen set and put it nearby your kitchen or give them pots and pans with spoons and a bit of water so they can “cook with you.”
  • Provide accessories – If your children like to play dress-up, add shoes, hats and bags. If it’s the kitchen set, give lots of pots and pans, place settings and food.
  • Organize the toys with all their accessories – It is helpful to their play if all of a toys parts are stored together. When they go to play farm, it’s best for all the animals, tractors and people to be right there.
  • Organize the space, so the toys are within reach – To play with toys, children need to have open access to them. Choose low shelves and clear bins.
  • Give them regular practice at independent play – It is good for kids to have real downtime (not screens), and it’s even good for them to get bored. Every day, children should have time to themselves. If your child is not good at independent play, they need more practice.
  • Encourage them or challenge them to keep at it – It is helpful to give an encouraging word such as, “wow, look how tall that tower is,” or a challenge, “can you build it faster this time?” to keep the play going.
  • Limit screentime – The more they are on screens, the less they are playing with toys.

Ways to Encourage Independent Play

Mädchen spielt mit Puzzle

It can be difficult when your child seems to need a playmate all day. If you aren’t playing with them, they complain they are bored or just wander and whine. It is a good skill in life to be able to occupy your own time. Here are several ways to encourage independent play:

  • First, pinpoint any particular needy times and plan accordingly – If your child is an early riser and always in need of company at that time, or if they need to reconnect when parents first return home, don’t expect those to be times for independent play.
  • Set aside specific times TO PLAY – Some children worry that they won’t get anytime with you if they don’t follow your every move and ask to play constantly. Giving them a time they can count on may aleviate this worry. It helps some if this play is the same time every day (think the needy times), but it can be different as long as it is your priority.
  • Explain why you need the time – Even very young children may appreciate an explanation of what you will be doing. This can be as simple as, “mommy has a few calls to make. I need quiet for 10 minutes.”
  • Set-up for play – Preschool classrooms are set-up for play. There is a reading corner with bookshelves, beanbags and puppets. There is a kitchen area with a stove, sink, fridge, table, place settings and babies in cribs. These set-up areas encourage children in to play. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, just think to make the play space inviting.
  • Create a space that builds on their interests – If your child is very into picture books, make a cozy reading corner that invites them in. Big beanbags, a low faceout book shelf, maybe a tape player for books on tape and a few related things like puppets. If your child loves trains, maybe a train table with lots of storage and a carpet with additional track.
  • Store toys and basic art supplies in view and within reach – Toys that are out of sight tend to be out of mind. If you prefer plastic bins, pick clear ones so kids can see what’s inside without dumping them out. Basic art supplies include crayons, paper, Play-doh or clay and water paints with brushes. If you are brave, this includes markers.
  • Store one type of thing per container – If you have bins or baskets, try to put just dress-up clothes in one and just balls in another. If you have a big toy box, add cardboard dividers so you have separate sections. When all kinds of toys are stored together, toys on the bottom are not played with and pieces tend to go missing more often.
  • Have specific areas for stored away toys – This means have a puzzle cabinet or a board game closet. While they may be out of sight, they are organized and together. Over time, your child will know where they are stored.
  • Start things with your child they can easily continue on their own – If your child is good at puzzles, maybe start a puzzle together and then take short trips away to “check on dinner” or, “change over the laundry.” Gradually make longer trips away.  When you do come back, each time comment, “you played so nicely by yourself,” or, “look, you got four more pieces done.”
  • Give your child things to do that are like what you are doing – If you are cooking, give them pots and pans with spoons and a bit of water, or let them “wash dishes” in the sink. If you are on the computer, give them their leap pad. They feel like they are doing something with you.
  • Set aside an independent play time each day – In the beginning independent play may go better if children are expecting it and they know how long it’s expected to last.
  • Provide more open ended toys – Closed ended toys have a built in end point. Open ended toys include dolls, blocks, kitchen and cooking sets, dress-up clothes and art supplies. Children use these toys in endless ways so the independent play may last longer.
  • Ask them their plan for play – If they often have trouble getting started ask them their plan or what they are going to play first. It may be easier for them to start once they have made a decision and have a focus.
  • Store some of your toys and then rotate – Many children have too many toys. When there are too many and toys just sit on the shelf, over time they become less interesting to children. The answer is to put half of the toys away in storage. When there are fewer choices, children tend to play longer and in deeper ways with the ones that are available. This also allows you to rotate toys which introduces toys as new without having to buy any. Rotating toys may be swapping half of what’s stored with half of what’s out every month or so.
  • Avoid filling their independent play time with TV and other screens – There can be a time for screens, but when you want your children to practice independent play, avoid them. Children watching screens are being otherwise occupied and not learning to play on their own.
  • Boredom is a good thing – Many parent worry about their children being bored when left to play alone. This boredom is what sparks creativity, allows children to explore their interests and leads to better quality independent play. It is good for kids to have real downtime. At a minimum think an hour a day of unstructured, just go play time. Time when they are in charge of what to do next.
  • Arrange playdates (if this is helpful) – Not really independent play, but once children are a bit older, they may want a friend to help spend their time playing away from you. You may have to have several playdates to find a mix of children that can play together nicely for long stretches. For others, the playdates are never really helpful. Some need more supervision on playdates, and there is no way you’d leave them alone. For more ideas about playdates, please read https://parentingbydrrene.com/2014/09/07/all-about-playdates/.
  • Give them more time – When children are bad at independent play, they often just need more practice.

Sibling Tips for Summer

Summer days can be a great time for siblings to spend real time together and play. These can also be days full of bickering, name calling and short tempers. Here are a few ideas to give them elbow room and hopefully improve their time together.

  • Get them outside – I was talking to a mom just the other morning who said she didn’t remember bickering with her brothers so much growing up and is amazed at how much her kids are already bickering with each other this summer break. Then, she remembered how much time she and her siblings spent outside during breaks riding their bikes and at the neighborhood playground with friends. I know you can’t just send them outside to amuse themselves for eight hours a summer day like my mom did in the 1970s, but you can get them outside more. Everyday plan to ride bikes, hit a playground, scooter, go for a nature walk or just play in the backyard.
  • Time apart – As much as I want my kids to enjoy their time together, a little time apart can go a long way. This means having some stretches of time where they each pick a room of the house to play in separately. In a bigger way, you might plan for them to have individual playdates when the other is out of the house. This can take some doing, but will allow them to focus on play while you avoid having to run interference.
  • A need to protect the older – So often, we excuse our younger child’s behavior and expect the older child to understand. If the younger messes up an older’s puzzle, we might say, “oh, she doesn’t know. She’s just three!” Over time, the older’s frustration may hit a breaking point. The answer is to find somewhere in the house the older can work on projects uninterrupted or store activities mid-build. My older daughter spent a bit of time playing up on the kitchen counter with more detailed toys when her sister was a toddler. It gave her a time she could relax without worrying about defending her space.
  • Shake up the time – Back to spending time together, get creative. Slumber parties complete with sleeping bags and popcorn can be a novel way to spend a summer night together. Having a picnic lunch in the backyard or even in the living room can be a fun change.

Join me for my upcoming evening workshop on Birth Order and Sibling Rivalry. This in depth discussion will provide more ways to build successful play as well as better manage bickering, fighting, aggression and guidelines for parents to dampen rivalry. This will meet on Wednesday, July 11th from 7:00-9:00 p.m.  For more information and to register, please visit http://www.eventbrite.com/org/283710166?s=1328924

A Friend’s Child is Aggressive

Dear Dr. Rene,

I am feeling stuck in a difficult situation. I have three children under five years old, and have been fortunate to be friends with our neighbor who has four children, three in the same age range. It was a great situation, we live so close and the kids enjoyed playing together. Unfortunately, one of her children has been diagnosed with special needs and has become increasingly aggressive towards my children in the last year. When the kids first became friends, he was only aggressive towards his own siblings, but now it is towards my kids, and it’s often. Recently, he pushes, scratches, headbutts, hits or kicks my oldest every time they play together. The behavior is impulsive and erratic, most times my child isn’t doing anything to provoke, and it can happen with an adult right beside them. One minute they are playing, the next he is pushing or scratching. The most frustrating thing is that my oldest (who has been the repeated victim) head butted his own younger sibling yesterday, something I never thought would happen. I don’t want my children hurt, and I don’t want them learning the behavior. I am also fearful this child is really going to hurt someone. My concern is such that I don’t want my children to play with this aggressive child. How do I handle things with the neighbor? What do I tell my son about the aggression, so he’s not confused by being hurt by a playmate and doesn’t learn the bad behavior? Also, I am fine with the other children in the family, they all play nicely. Can I invite just them? We’ve become good friends with the neighbors ourselves and go out together and celebrate occasions together. Is there a way to keep the other relationships and avoid play with the one who is having such difficulty and seems to be getting worse?

Sincerely,

Concerned Mom of Three

Dear Concerned,

There are so many questions here with lots of options. Your primary concern is and should be your own children, their safety and what they are learning from these incidents. Part of the message they are getting rests in the follow-up that happens when this child is aggressive. Are you or the other parent addressing the behavior? Some parents give up as it happens so often and chalk it up to how kids play. If this is the case, your child is learning that behavior gets a pass. If the mom is addressing well each time with consequences and coaching how to play nicely often, hopefully your child is also seeing this piece to understand it is an unwanted or unacceptable behavior. If you continue to play as things are, I think you’ll need to address with the mom how this should be handled each time. Ask that it be consistently addressed when the children are playing together. Be sure you are both comfortable with being able to follow through. Even with a consistent follow through, your children are learning from his behavior. That they see aggression in play makes it more available as a behavior to try themselves.

If you choose to continue the play, you might try to change the play that is available. Children tend to be more aggressive in unstructured open play. You might limit play to field trips, bowling or movies. When they are at the house, you might invite them over for painting on big paper then snack and goodbyes. The idea is to fill their time rather than just go play. We had a relative whose child was particularly aggressive when the girls were little. We talked about it and for a few years opted to just get together for outings rather than open play. Honestly, there were hurt feelings, but a few years later we were able to go back to regular play.

You might also have one parent “shadow” him. In our preschool shadowing would mean one teacher stays within arms reach. This is so they might see it coming and be able to intervene early or at least stop it quickly if it starts. The idea would be to allow play but be watching and close at all times.

You and mom might also look for triggers and cues for the aggression. While you say it seems to happen out of the blue, likely there are things that set him off and signs he gives before the aggression. Triggers might be another child having a toy he wants, being told no, very close physical play or having to wait. Triggers are the things that set him off, and, if you can learn what they are, you have a better chance to intervene. Cues are signs he’s about to be aggressive. Some children get tense shoulders, others get a wild look in their eyes or their voice goes up a notch. The idea is to look and listen for cues and intervene on the cue rather than the behavior that follows.

All this is a lot of effort and assumes you are going to continue the play. I think you are also perfectly reasonable to decide to end the play at least for now. If this is the case, you can offer to maintain the play with the other children in the family, but be prepared for the mom to decline. It may be too difficult for her to separate her children this way. You can also suggest keeping the parent relationship going, but again this may be declined.

Either way you go with the above, you will have to speak with the mom. When you do, this avoid blaming her or her children. Talk about your concerns for the safety of all, that your children have started being more aggressive with each other recently, and you are working to curb that. Or, you could just opt to let this whole relationship go quietly. This means to stop making the invites and politely decline when invitations are made.  Eventually, she may push you for an explanation and giving that is up to you.

I hope something in here is helpful.

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

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